Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gastrogrub: Tampa Trifecta

As our friends and relatives will attest, Hubmeister and I have been known to darken the door of a pub or two. In fact, soaking up good adult beverages in fun, interesting places ranks high on our list of great excuses not to do yard work. It's an added bonus if the drinking establishment serves decent food. Unfortunately, bar food typically is -- how do I put this delicately -- crap. With the onset of the gastropub explosion a few years back, that tendency thankfully has started to change. Even here!

Before I get to my reviews, though, I would like to address a disturbing trend and put it out there that, unlike a growing number of Tampa food bloggers, I do not blog for food (or drink). Food and Loathing in Tampa Bay features unbiased opinion based on a typical dining experience. I do not attend manufactured blogger events or accept free meals in exchange for restaurant reviews. Nice try with those invitations, however.

Now that you know my stance on the bribing-the-blogger phenomenon, without further ado I present a few local watering holes where Hubs and I, as always, showed up anonymously and used our own cash to grab a bite and enjoy a few cold ones.

New World Brewery - Ybor
Nestled behind a wall of leafy green foliage, this cool spot sits near the corner of E. 8th Avenue and N. 13th Street in Ybor City. On a cool spring day we strolled through an inviting outdoor beer garden and into a bar filled with old-world ambience. The atmosphere is pub-like, with brick walls, a dark-wood bar and distressed flooring.

New World runs a weekday barbecue buffet from 11 a.m. till 3 p.m. Sold by weight, you can load up on meat that is smoked on site, along with an array of barbecue-type sides. The Hubster and I loathe buffets of any kind, mainly because we are germaphobes but also because we can't stand seeing food sitting comatose under lights.

We opted for something straight from the kitchen -- away from the sneezing, finger-licking masses -- and got a stone-seared 14-inch pizza that was pretty darned good. The crust had a satisfying bite and lived up to its "super thin" menu description. A mozzarella/Romano cheese blend was a nice change of pace from a standard mozzarella-topped pie, but if you fancy trying different pizza bases and toppings, this place offers several creative options, from a black bean base with Italian sausage, green pepper and onion to a white-sauce pizza topped with artichoke, smoked chicken and feta cheese. Recipe wizards also can come up with their own concoctions, but New World's suggestions look good to me.

The bar features a ton of draft and bottled beer and the bartenders are happy to suggest a brew to suit your taste. There's a fully loaded jukebox to liven things up when a live band isn't performing. Check the website to see who's lined up on the calendar.

Verdict: A bar find and a fine bar.

New World Brewery on Urbanspoon

Independent Bar & Cafe - Seminole Heights
This converted gas station/garage on Florida Avenue sits next to Cappy's Pizza in Seminole Heights. Hubs and I were puzzled when we first went inside because you can sit anywhere you want but, similar to pubs in England, it's up to you to approach the bar and order. You also place food orders at the bar and when the dish is ready, somebody runs it to your table.

The evening we checked it out, the weather was nice and most people were imbibing outside, enjoying the sights and sounds of picturesque Florida Avenue. (Come on, you know that's funny!) Okay, maybe not. Anyway, we chose an inside spot and pretended we weren't on Florida Avenue.

If you plan to order more than one small plate, sit at a normal table. Only thing is, I don't think they have one. Maybe outside. The few inside tables are Munchkin-level low to the ground. What this establishment does feature are plenty of industrial-looking wood-block drink stands that don't provide enough room for more than a couple of drinks, much less plates of food. Eventually we moved from an uncomfortable wooden bench along a wall to an uncomfortable child-sized table.

Overall, the interior vibe beckons the 20-something hipster: one who enjoys alternative music and sleeps soundly on a futon. Read: Hubmeister and I are getting old.

Our aging butts aside, nobody inside was ordering food, but, hey, we felt compelled to try a few things. Hubman bellied up to the bar and ordered German pretzels, a bratwurst and sauerkraut plate, and a grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwich, you snobbishly ask? Mais oui, mes amis! This is the Indie Grilled Cheese, not "cheese food" smashed between squares of greasy grilled white bread.

The Indie combines Gouda cheese with pears that have been sautéed with honey and spices. This lovely combo, served on rye and pressed to oozing opulence, is served with a tasty salad of field greens, blue cheese, walnuts and grapes, all splashed with a poppy seed vinaigrette.

The pretzel is standard fare and comes with a sweet German mustard. As for the bratwurst, Hubs downed his beer-infused link in short order. (Hint: Spring for a second sausage if you have any semblance of an appetite.) The dish is served in trendy "deconstructed" fashion, with the grilled sausage, sauerkraut, beer onion sauce and toast points each staking its claim to the plate.

But wait, toast points and bratwurst? The Germans are laughing. In any case, it was all good, especially the beer sauce.

Verdict: Neighborhood hangout with amped-up food and drink.

Independent Bar & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Cigar City Brewpub - Carrollwood
Although it's more restaurant than pub, Cigar City seems to fit into this bar-hopping post. Must be the vats of beer looming within a chicharron's throw from the bar. Be that as it may, the mood created by those industrial tanks does nothing for me. They remind me of the old Hops restaurants that met their demise a couple of decades ago, when I thought dining among enormous stainless steel containers was cool.

So we noted the huge vessels near the front door and were shown to a booth where we joined the Mississippi Maven and her beer-lovin' Mississippi Man. We promptly ordered pints of Cigar City brew, appetizers of chicharrons and Cuban egg rolls, and burgers.

While enjoying the mighty fine beer, I absorbed the former TGI Friday's space: bar on one side, a couple of rectangular-shaped dining areas on the other and additional table seating on an outside patio. The view: dismal parking lot, garden-variety strip center and endless traffic on Dale Mabry Highway. Maybe this is Hops! Nope, Hops didn't have beer can chandeliers. 

Cigar City has gotten some mixed reviews, with critics lauding the food and many everyday diners panning it. Here's what Hubs and I thought: The chicharrons, a.k.a. deep-fried nuggets of pig skin, were oversalted. Hubs is now chiming in that he has had them in Miami where they were far superior because these, he complains, were not crispy enough. After all, nobody wants flabby skin. The rest of us have no frame of reference so you have to trust Hubster, who spent many a business trip pigging out in Miami.

The egg rolls were more to my liking. Picture a large egg roll, composed of Cuban sandwich ingredients, that's cut in half, providing two people with a normal-sized bite. Then imagine those fried Cuban morsels of pork, ham, salami, cheese and pickles diving into a mustard dipping sauce. How can one go wrong with these? Well, one can't.

As much as I hate restaurant groupthink, all of us ordered the house burger, which is made from grass-fed beef. Mine was cooked to a perfect medium, which is no small feat when I'm manning the grill at home. I find burgers really hard to get right, so I appreciate one that's perfectly cooked. A-plus on that score. The flavor profile was interesting, meaning I liked it, ate it, but wouldn't repeat it. Served on a brioche bun, the burger included plantains, bacon, sofrito (a seasoning of pureed tomatoes, peppers, garlic, onion and cilantro) and roasted garlic aioli. The sweetness of the plantains put me off somewhat. Asked if we wanted more garlic aioli, I should have said yes. It would have counteracted that sweetness and provided additional moisture too. 

Accompanying the burgers were malanga chips. Popular in Cuba, malanga is a tropical root that resembles a sweet potato. I liked the chips, but I wouldn't make a return trip for them.
Our server was attentive and dutifully explained the beer offerings, the restaurant's theme of adhering to Tampa's cultural roots, and the Spanish- and Cuban-inspired menu. He inquired if we wanted dessert and we declined, or at least declined what most people would consider dessert. As we were about to leave the table, the Maven's Man hesitated, contemplated and finally caved. In anticipation, we waited for his request...a piece of flourless chocolate cake or perhaps bread pudding du jour? Ah, we should have known, he got another round of Cigar City Jai Alai IPA. Now that's what I call a sweet finish.

Verdict: The beer is the star.

Cigar City Brewpub Restaurant on Urbanspoon


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